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Low-Carbon Transportation Means More than Electric Vehicles Alone

November 1, 2022
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This post is first in a series on transportation system efficiency.

Many local governments are accelerating efforts to increase the use of electric vehicles (EVs) to meet ambitious climate goals, but EVs alone will not reduce transportation emissions enough to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change. EVs are not necessarily zero emission, and many people do not use automobiles as their primary mode of transportation. In urban environments particularly, people of color, those with low incomes, and younger residents are more likely than others to rely on transit and active forms of travel such as walking and biking. Local policymakers should accommodate and encourage these methods of transportation to lower emissions in a more equitable way.

The COVID-19 Pandemic Impact on Transportation Emissions

Transportation causes 27% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making it the largest source of climate pollution in the United States. Though emissions decreased substantially at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have since rebounded. The increase is largely due to increased car travel, which has returned to or even surpassed pre-pandemic levels in many states as large numbers of white-collar workers exchanged their urban apartments, transit cards, and bikes for larger homes, remote work schedules, and car keys in sprawling suburbs. Moves out of central cities jumped 17% during the first year of the pandemic. Swapping gas-powered cars for EVs could reduce up to 48% of U.S. transportation GHG emissions by 2050, but it will still leave many large urban centers short on their climate commitments and many residents without access to reliable and affordable transportation options.

Equitable Responses to Reduce Transportation Emissions

To further reduce GHG emissions and ensure equitable transportation access, governments in urbanized areas will need to take steps to better meet the needs of those who do not or cannot rely on cars for travel. Local decision makers will need to adapt their policies, programs, and projects to better meet the needs of their residents now and in the future, while also achieving GHG reductions. Meeting the needs of many people of color and those with low incomes will involve revising transit schedules and bus routes, which some transit agencies have already undertaken, leading to increased ridership. It will also mean conducting deep engagement around transit and micromobility projects with historically marginalized communities and designing transportation systems to better serve their needs. Transportation investments can be coupled with affordable housing, land use planning, and vehicle electrification policies or investments to meet other community needs and maximize GHG reductions. Jurisdictions will need to focus on meeting the evolving transportation needs of a younger generation that is increasingly moving into central cities and will need energy-efficient and low-carbon transportation options that meet their needs as they age, search for larger homes, and start families.

Transportation System Efficiency Is Critical

These efforts are examples of improving transportation system efficiency, an approach that aims to equitably increase access to low- or no-carbon transportation options while reducing the need for car travel, often measured in the total number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Transportation system efficiency focuses on encouraging denser urban development that attracts households and businesses to locate in close proximity to one another and allows residents to access services by walking, biking, scootering, or taking transit. It also involves building infrastructure to support those energy-efficient and low-carbon forms of travel. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, these sorts of transportation and land use strategies have the potential to reduce urban transportation-related fuel use and its associated GHG emissions by roughly 25% above vehicle electrification.

To reduce transportation emissions in a significant way, local governments will need to expand transit and micromobility options, enact land use policies that encourage dense development and affordable housing around transit, and reduce VMT to supplement vehicle electrification efforts. Federal funding is available to help localities enact these policies, and we will explore in later blog posts how local governments can reimagine their approaches to transportation and land use to achieve these goals.

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Transportation System Efficiency Local and Community Initiatives
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